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Poems from Railman's Son


Tomato Soup Reminds Me

of Poverty


That was the summer my mother slouched

at the table, so beaten down, numbed

by the death of her first son burnt deep

into her bones while my father sat

at table’s end, working into a fury.

The summer I flailed at curve balls,

beat up once a week by the Schmidt

brothers. I walked the railroad yards

between steaming engines

and peeling, off-red box cars.

Every day the wind blew

in from the southeast where the meat

plant sat, the stench of shit and blood.

I walked on Main, sneaking glances

into the faces of those escapees

from the bars; those ruined

faces, those tired faces looted

of hope. Their bunched shoulders.

Waiting for me, a cracked

linoleum floor, another bowl

of tomato soup and my father

in another rage. The summer

my mother first crossed her hands

and wept. The summer I vowed

never to return. The summer I prayed

for amnesty. The summer when each

day dripped into a soiled

twilight and the wind shifted—clean

and cool from the north.


Winner of the Edna St. Vincent Millay

Prize for Poetry

The Tilting Saddle Bar
(after James Wright)

Down the splintered steps, I turn

toward the James and its steep banks

strangled with cattails and hobo weeds.

Upstream, at the Third Street bridge,

looms the Hormel plant, its whistle

wailing and its doors opening to the early

evening crickets. The men pour down

the long hill, pour down to the river

and over the bridge into a pale sun,

past abandoned railcars into silo

shadows and beckoning downtown lights.

With abandon, I run through the river park

to catch them—then straggle behind

as some head to shanty houses;

others to neon. And I trail them.

Downtown, one old man, face purple

stands near a bar door that swings on tight

hinges and glares at the men then me.

And I plunge in and find scrawny

women, faces uplifted, legs crossed.

In the back, sit laid-off railmen—

my father one—three drinks into the night.

His eyes blurry, his voice loud over the jukebox.

I cringe. Patrons, now sloppy drunk,

pinching women’s asses as they head

to the can. The air sweat filled, smoke tinged.

More whiskey shots and beer chasers.

The men’s faces drunk red, their eyes

shining with coming madness.


Then the shadow boxing, the boasts,

some guy puking in the corner. Two guys

pick him up, put him on a bar stool, order

him two whiskeys. They laugh when his hands

shake too much to hold a shot glass.

My stomach roils and my father shouts: Son.

And the stale beer and the cigarettes

sink into my pores for all

the coming years of my life.


Crab Orchard Review,

Ka-Ching:  The Money Issue, March 2019




The Boy

The father plods from funeral to gravesite

back to his black Buick and sits.

 Revs the motor,

smoking the tenth Camel of the day.


His black suit too small for his shoulders.

Once home, the father chops up

all the Bibles,

and pisses on them before he pours

gasoline on the mess and lights it.


He is a man at war,

How the flames

singe his fingers, blister them for days.


Later, he will be surprised by his wife’s anger,

his mother’s anguished words. But he damn well


knows he did the right thing.  He can still feel

the grasp

of his tiny fingers. His son dead.

Two months old.

 Comstock Review, Spring/Summer, 2019

Poems from Ralman's Son
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